Modulation of cellular thiols is an effective therapeutic strategy, particularly in the treatment of AIDS. Lipoic acid, a metabolic antioxidant, functions as a redox modulator and has proven clinically beneficial effects. It is also used as a dietary supplement. We utilized the specific capabilities of N-ethylmaleimide to block total cellular thiols, phenylarsine oxide to block vicinal dithiols, and buthionine sulfoximine to deplete cellular GSH to flow cytometrically investigate how these thiol pools are influenced by exogenous lipoate treatment. Low concentrations of lipoate and its analogue lipoamide increased Jurkat cell GSH in a dose-dependent manner between 10 (25 μM for lipoamide) to 100 μM. This was also observed in mitogenically stimulated peripheral blood lymphocytes (PBL). Studies with Jurkat cells and its Wurzburg subclone showed that lipoate dependent increase in cellular GSH was similar in CD4+ and − cells. Chronic (16 week) exposure of cells to lipoate resulted in further increase of total cellular thiols, vicinal dithiols, and GSH. High concentration (2 and 5 mM) of lipoate exhibited cell shrinkage, thiol depletion, and DNA fragmentation effects. Based on similar effects of octanoic acid, the cytotoxic effects of lipoate at high concentration could be attributed to its fatty acid structure. In certain diseases such as AIDS and cancer, elevated plasma glutamate lowers cellular GSH by inhibiting cystine uptake. Low concentrations of lipoate and lipoamide were able to bypass the adverse effect of elevated extracellular glutamate. A heterogeneity in the thiol status of PBL was observed. Lipoate, lipoamide, or N-acetylcysteine corrected the deficient thiol status of cell subpopulations. Hence, the favorable effects of low concentrations of lipoate treatment appears clinically relevant.